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CHAPTER

66

Kallias and his army arrived by noon.

It was only the sound of it that woke me from where my sisters and I dozed on the floor. That, and a thought that clanged through me.

Tamlin.

His actions would cover Jurian’s betrayal. I had no doubt Tamlin hadn’t gone back to Hybern’s army after the meeting to betray us—but to play spy.

Though after last night … it was unlikely he’d get close to Hybern again. Not when the king himself had witnessed everything.

I didn’t know what to make of it.

That he’d saved me—that he’d given up his deception to do so. Where had he gone to when he’d winnowed? We hadn’t heard anything about the Spring Court forces.

And that wind he’d sent … I’d never seen him use such a power.

The Nephelle Philosophy indeed. The weakness that had transformed into a strength hadn’t been my wings, my flying. But Tamlin. If he hadn’t interfered … I didn’t let myself consider.

Elain and Nesta were still dozing on the bearskin rug when I eased out from their tangle of limbs. Washed my face in the copper basin set near my bed. A glimpse in the mirror above it revealed I’d seen better days. Weeks. Months.

I peeled back the neck of my white shirt to frown at the wound bandaged at my shoulder. I winced, rotating the joint—marveling at how much it had already healed. My back, however …

Aching pain jolted and rippled all along it. In my abdomen, too. Muscles I’d pushed to the breaking point to get airborne. Frowning at the mirror, I braided my hair and shrugged on my jacket, hissing at the movement in my shoulder. Another day or two, and the pain might be minimal enough to wield a sword. Maybe.

I prayed Azriel would be in better shape. If Thesan himself had been healing him, perhaps he was. If we were lucky.

I didn’t know how Azriel had managed to stay aloft—stay conscious during those minutes in the sky. I didn’t let myself think about how and when and why he’d learned to manage pain like that.

I quietly asked the nearest camp-mother to dig up some platters of food for my sisters. Elain was likely starving, and I doubted Nesta had eaten anything during the hours we’d been gone.

The winged matron only asked if I needed anything, and when I told her I was fine, she just clicked her tongue and said she’d make sure food found its way to me, too.

I didn’t have the nerve to request she find some of Amren’s preferred food as well. Even if I had no doubt Amren would need it—after her … activities with Varian last night. Unless he’d—

I didn’t let myself think about that as I aimed for her tent. We’d found Hybern’s army. And having seen it last night … I’d offer Amren any help I could in decoding that spell the Suriel had pointed her toward. Anything, if it meant stopping the Cauldron. And when we’d picked our final battlefield … then, only then, would I unleash Bryaxis upon Hybern.

I was nearly to her tent, offering grim smiles in exchange for the nods and wary glances the Illyrian warriors gave me, when I spied the commotion just near the edge of camp. A few extra steps had me staring out across a thin demarcation line of grass and mud—to the Winter Court camp now nearly constructed in its full splendor.

Kallias’s army was still winnowing in supplies and units of warriors, his court made up of High Fae with either his snow-white hair or hair of blackest night, skin ranging from moon pale to rich brown. The lesser fae … he’d brought more lesser faeries than any of us, if you excluded the Illyrians. It was an effort not to gawk as I lingered at the edge of where their camp began.

Long-limbed creatures like shards of ice given form stalked past, tall enough to plant the cobalt-and-silver banners atop various tents; wagons were hauled by sure-footed reindeer and lumbering white bears in ornate armor, some so keenly aware when they ambled by that I wouldn’t have been surprised if they could talk. White foxes scuttled about underfoot, bearing what looked to be messages strapped to their little embroidered vests.

Our Illyrian army was brutal, basic—few frills and sheer rank reigned. Kallias’s army—or, I suppose, the army that Viviane had held together during Amarantha’s reign—was a complex, beautiful, teeming thing. Orderly, and yet thrumming with life. Everyone had a purpose, everyone seemed keen on doing it efficiently and proudly.

I spotted Mor walking with Viviane and a stunningly beautiful young woman who looked like either Viviane’s twin or sister. Viviane was beaming, Mor perhaps more subdued for once, and as she twisted—

My brows rose. The human girl—Briar—was with them. Now tucked beneath Viviane’s arm, face still bruised and swollen in spots, but … smiling timidly at the Winter Court ladies.

Viviane began to lead Briar away, chattering merrily, and Mor and Viviane’s possible-sister lingered to watch them. Mor said something to the stranger that made her smile—well, slightly.

It was a restrained smile, and it faded quickly. Especially as a High Fae soldier strode past, grinned at her with some teasing remark, and then continued on. Mor watched the female’s face carefully—and swiftly looked away as she turned back to her, clapped Mor on the shoulder, and strode off after her possible-sister and Briar.

I remembered our argument the moment Mor turned toward me. Remembered the words we’d left unsaid, the ones I probably shouldn’t have spoken. Mor flipped her hair over a shoulder and headed right for me.

I spoke before she could get the first word out, “You gave Briar over to them?”

We fell into step back toward our own camp. “Az explained the state you found her in. I didn’t think being exposed to battle-ready Illyrians would do much to soothe her.”

“And the Winter Court army is much better?”

“They’ve got fuzzy animals.”

I snorted, shaking my head. Those enormous bears were indeed fuzzy—if you ignored the claws and teeth.

Mor glanced sidelong at me. “You did a very brave thing in saving Briar.”

“Anyone would have done it.”

“No,” she said, adjusting her tight Illyrian jacket. “I’m not sure … I’m not sure even I would have tried to get her. If I would have deemed the risk worth it. I’ve made enough calls like that where it went badly that I …” She shook her head.

I swallowed. “How’s Azriel?”

“Alive. His back is fine. But Thesan hasn’t healed many Illyrian wings, so the healing is … slow. Different from repairing Peregryn wings, apparently. Rhys sent for Madja.” The healer in Velaris. “She’ll be here either later today or tomorrow to work on him.”

“Will he—fly again?”

“Considering Cassian’s wings were in worse shape, I’d say yes. But … perhaps not in battle. Not anytime soon.”

My stomach tightened. “He won’t be happy about that.”

“None of us are.”

To lose Azriel on the field …

Mor seemed to read what I was thinking and said, “Better than being dead.” She dragged a hand through her golden hair. “It would have been so easy—for things to have gone wrong last night. And when I saw you two vanish … I had this thought, this terror, that I might not get to see you again. To make things right.”

“I said things I didn’t really mean to—”

“We both did.” She led me up to the tree line at the border of both our camps, and I knew from that alone … I knew she was about to tell me something she didn’t wish anyone overhearing. Something worth delaying my meeting with Amren for a little while.

She leaned against a towering oak, foot tap-tapping on the ground. “No more lies between us.”

Guilt tugged on my gut. “Yes,” I said. “I—I’m sorry about deceiving you. I just … I made a mistake. And I’m sorry.”

Mor rubbed her face. “You were right about me, though. You were …” Her hand shook as she lowered it. She gnawed on her lip, throat bobbing. Her eyes at last met mine—bright and fearful and anguished. Her voice broke as she said, “I don’t love Azriel.”

I remained perfectly still. Listening.

“No, that’s not true, either. I—I do love him. As my family. And sometimes I wonder if it can be … more, but … I do not love him. Not the way he—he feels for me.” The last words were a trembling whisper.

“Have you ever loved him? That way?”

“No.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “No. I don’t … You see …” I’d never seen her at such a loss for words. She closed her eyes, fingers digging into her skin. “I can’t love him like that.”

“Why?”

“Because I prefer females.”

For a heartbeat, only silence rippled through me. “But—you sleep with males. You slept with Helion …” And had looked terrible the next day. Tortured and not at all sated.

Not just because of Azriel, but … because it wasn’t what she wanted.

“I do find pleasure in them. In both.” Her hands were shaking so fiercely that she gripped herself even tighter. “But I’ve known, since I was little more than a child, that I prefer females. That I’m … attracted to them more over males. That I connect with them, care for them more on that soul-deep level. But at the Hewn City … All they care about is breeding their bloodlines, making alliances through marriage. Someone like me … If I were to marry where my heart desired, there would be no offspring. My father’s bloodline would have ended with me. I knew it—knew that I could never tell them. Ever. People like me … we’re reviled by them. Considered selfish, for not being able to pass on the bloodline. So I never breathed a word of it. And then … then my father betrothed me to Eris, and … And it wasn’t just the prospect of marriage to him that scared me. No, I knew I could survive his brutality, his cruelty and coldness. I was—I am stronger than him. It was … It was the idea of being bred like a prize mare, of being forced to give up that one part of me …” Her mouth wobbled, and I reached for her hand, prying it off her arm. I squeezed gently as tears began sliding down her flushed face.

“I slept with Cassian because I knew it would mean little to him, too. Because I knew doing it would buy me a shot at freedom. If I had told my parents that I preferred females … You’ve met my father. He and Beron would have tied me to that marriage bed for Eris. Literally. But sullied … I knew my shot at freedom lay there. And I saw how Azriel looked at me … knew how he felt. And if I’d chosen him …” She shook her head. “It wouldn’t have been fair to him. So I slept with Cassian, and Azriel thought I deemed him unsuitable, and then everything happened and …” Her fingers tightened on mine. “After Azriel found me with that note nailed to my womb … I tried to explain. But he started to confess what he felt, and I panicked, and … and to get him to stop, to keep him from saying he loved me, I just turned and left, and … and I couldn’t face explaining it after that. To Az, to the others.”

She loosed a shuddering breath. “I sleep with males in part because I enjoy it, but … also to keep people from looking too closely.”

“Rhys wouldn’t care—I don’t think anyone in Velaris would.”

A nod. “Velaris is … a haven for people like me. Rita’s … the owner is like me. A lot of us go there—without anyone really ever picking up on it.”

No wonder she practically lived at the pleasure hall.

“But this part of me …” Mor wiped at her tears with her free hand. “It didn’t matter as much, when my family disowned me. When they called me a whore and a piece of trash. When they hurt me. Because those things … they weren’t part of me. Weren’t true, and weren’t … intrinsic. They couldn’t break me because … because they never touched that innermost part of me. They never even guessed. But I hid it … I’ve hidden it because …” She tilted back her head, looking skyward. “Because I live in terror of my family finding out—and shaming me, hurting me about this one thing that has remained wholly mine. This one part of me. I won’t let them … won’t let them destroy it. Or try to. So I’ve rarely … During the War, I finally took my first—female lover.”

She was quiet for a long moment, blinking away tears. “It was Nephelle and her lover—now her wife, I suppose—who made me dare to try. They made me so jealous. Not of them personally, but just … of what they had. Their openness. That they lived in a place, with a people who thought nothing of it. But with the War, with the traveling across the world … No one from home was with me for months at a time. It was safe, for once. And one of the human queens …”

The friends she had so passionately mentioned, had known so intimately.

“Her name was Andromache. And she was … so beautiful. And kind. And I loved her … so much.”

Human. Andromache had been human. My eyes burned.

“But she was human. And a queen—who needed to continue her royal line, especially during such a tumultuous time. So I left—went home after the last battle. And when I realized what a mistake it was, that I didn’t care if I only had sixty more years with her … The wall went up that day.” A small sob came out of her.

“And I could not … I was not allowed or able to cross it. I tried. For three years, I tried over and over. And by the time I managed to find a hole to cross … She had married. A man. And had an infant daughter—with another on the way. I didn’t set foot inside her castle. Didn’t even try to see her. I just turned around and went home.”

“I’m so sorry,” I breathed, my voice breaking.

“She bore five children. And died an old woman, safe in her bed. And I saw her spirit again—in that golden queen. Her descendant.”

Mor closed her eyes, breath rippling past her shaking lips. “For a while, I mourned her. Both while she lived and after she died. For a few decades, there were no lovers—of any kind. But then … one day I woke up, and I wanted … I don’t know what I wanted. The opposite of her. I found them—female, male. A few lovers over these past centuries, the females always secret—and I think that’s why it wore on them, why they always ended it. I could never be … open about it. Never be seen with them. And as for the males … it never went as deep. The bond, I mean. Even if I did still crave—you know, every now and then.” A huff of a laugh that I echoed. “But all of them … It wasn’t the same as Andromache. It doesn’t feel the same—in here,” she breathed, putting a hand over her heart.

“And the male lovers I took … it became a way to keep Azriel from wondering why—why I wouldn’t notice him. Make that move. You see—you see how marvelous he is. How special. But if I slept with him, even once, just to try it, to make sure … I think after all this time, he’d think it was a culmination—a happy ending. And … I think it might shatter him if I revealed afterward that … I’m not sure I can give my entire heart to him that way. And … and I love him enough to want him to find someone who can truly love him like he deserves. And I love myself … I love myself enough to not want to settle until I find that person, too.” A shrug. “If I can even work up the courage to tell the world first. My gift is truth—and yet I have been living a lie my entire existence.”

I squeezed her hand once more. “You’ll tell them when you’re ready. And I’ll stand by you no matter what. Until then … Your secret is safe. I won’t tell anyone—even Rhys.”

“Thank you,” she breathed.

I shook my head. “No—thank you for telling me. I’m honored.”

“I wanted to tell you; I realized I wanted to tell you the moment you and Azriel winnowed to Hybern’s camp. And the thought of not being able to tell you …” Her fingers tightened around mine. “I promised the Mother that if you made it back safely, I would tell you.”

“It seemed she was happy to take the bargain,” I said with a smile.

Mor wiped at her face and grinned. It faded almost instantly. “You must think I’m horrible for stringing along Azriel—and Cassian.”

I considered. “No. No, I don’t.” So many things—so many things now made sense. How Mor had looked away from the heat in Azriel’s eyes. How she’d avoided that sort of romantic intimacy, but had been fine to defend him if she felt his physical or emotional well-being was at stake.

Azriel loved her, of that I had no doubt. But Mor … I’d been blind not to see. Not to realize that there was a damn good reason why five hundred years had passed and Mor had not accepted what Azriel so clearly offered to her.

“Do you think Azriel suspects?” I asked.

Mor drew her hand from mine and paced a few steps. “Maybe. I don’t know. He’s too observant not to, but … I think it confuses him whenever I take a male home.”

“So the thing with Helion … Why?”

“He wanted a distraction from his own problems, and I …” She sighed. “Whenever Azriel makes his feelings clear, like he did with Eris … It’s stupid, I know. It’s so stupid and cruel that I do this, but … I slept with Helion just to remind Azriel … Gods, I can’t even say it. It sounds even worse saying it.”

“To remind him that you’re not interested.”

“I should tell him. I need to tell him. Mother above, after last night, I should. But …” She twisted her mass of golden hair over a shoulder. “It’s gone on for so long. So long. I’m petrified to face him—to tell him he’s spent five hundred years pining for someone and something that won’t ever exist. The potential fallout … I like things the way they are. Even if I can’t … can’t really be me, I … things are good enough.”

“I don’t think you should settle for ‘good enough,’ ” I said quietly. “But I understand. And, again … when you decide the time is right, whether it’s tomorrow or in another five hundred years … I’ll have your back.”

She blinked away tears again. I turned toward the camp, and a faint smile bloomed on my mouth.

“What?” she asked, coming to my side.

“I was just thinking,” I said, smile growing, “that whenever you’re ready … I was thinking about how much fun I’m going to have playing matchmaker for you.”

Mor’s answering grin was brighter than the entirety of the Day Court.

Amren had secluded herself in a tent, and would not let anyone in. Not me, or Varian, or Rhysand.

I certainly tried, hissing as I pushed against her wards, but even Helion’s magic could not break them. And no matter how I demanded and coaxed and pleaded, she did not answer. Whatever the Suriel had told me to suggest to her about the Book … she’d deemed it more vital, it seemed, than even why I’d come to speak to her: to join me in retrieving Bryaxis. I could likely do it without her since she’d already disabled the wards to contain Bryaxis, but … Amren’s presence would be … welcome. On my end, at least.

Perhaps it made me a coward, but facing Bryaxis on my own, to bind it into a slightly more tangible body and summon it here at last to smash through Hybern’s army … Amren would be better—at the talking, the ordering.

But since I wasn’t about to start shouting about my plans in the middle of that camp … I cursed Amren soundly and stormed back to my war-tent.

Only to find that my plans were to be upended anyway. For even if I brought Bryaxis to Hybern’s army … That army was no longer where it was supposed to be.

Standing beside the enormous worktable in the war-tent, every side flanked with High Lords and their commanders, I crossed my arms as Helion slid an unnerving number of figures across the lower half of Prythian’s map. “My scouts say Hybern is on the move as of this afternoon.”

Azriel, perched on a stool, his wings and back heavily bandaged and face still grayish with blood loss, nodded once. “My spies say the same.” His voice was still hoarse from screaming.

Helion’s blazing amber eyes narrowed. “He shifted directions, though. He’d planned to move that army north—drive us back that way. Now he marches due east.”

Rhys braced his hands on the table, his sable hair sliding forward as he studied the map. “So he’s now heading straight across the island—to what end? He would have been better off sailing around. And I doubt he’s changed his mind about meeting us in battle. Even with Tamlin now revealed as an enemy.” They’d all been quietly shocked, some relieved, to hear it. Though we’d had no whisper of whether Tamlin would be now marching his small force to us. And nothing from Beron, either.

Tarquin frowned. “Losing Tamlin won’t cost him many troops, but Hybern could be going to meet another ally on the eastern coast—to rendezvous with the army of those human queens from the continent.”

Azriel shook his head, wincing at the movement and what it surely did to his back. “He sent the queens back to their homes—and there they remain, their armies not even raised. He’ll wait to wield that host until he arrives on the continent.”

Once he was done annihilating us. And if we failed tomorrow … would there be anyone at all to challenge Hybern on the continent? Especially once those queens rallied their human armies to his banner—

“Perhaps he’s leading us on another chase,” Kallias mused with a frown, Viviane peering at the map beside him.

“Not Hybern’s style,” Mor said. “He doesn’t establish patterns—he knows we’re onto his first method of stretching us thin. Now he’ll try another way.”

As she spoke, Keir—standing with two silent Darkbringer captains—studied her closely. I braced myself for any sort of sneer, but the male merely resumed examining the map. These meetings had been the only place where she’d bothered to acknowledge her father’s role in this war—and even then, even now, she barely glanced his way.

But it was better than outright hostility, though I had no doubt Mor was wise enough not to lay into Keir when we still needed his Darkbringers. Especially after Keir’s legion had suffered so many losses at that second battle. Whether Keir was furious about those casualties, he had not let on—neither had any of his soldiers, who did not speak with anyone outside their own ranks beyond what was necessary. Silence, I supposed, was far preferable. And Keir’s sense of self-preservation no doubt kept his mouth shut in these meetings—and bade him take whatever orders were sent his way.

“Hybern is delaying the conflict,” Helion murmured. “Why?”

I glanced over at Nesta, sitting with Elain by the faelight braziers. “He still doesn’t have the missing piece. Of the Cauldron’s power.”

Rhys angled his head, studying the map, then my sisters. “Cassian.” He pointed to the massive river snaking inland through the Spring Court. “If we were to cut south from where we are now—to head right down to the human lands … would you cross that river, or go west far enough to avoid it?”

Cassian lifted a brow. Gone was yesterday’s pallid face and pain. A small mercy.

On the opposite side of the table, Lord Devlon seemed inclined to open his mouth to give his opinion. Unlike Keir, the Illyrian commander had no such qualms about making his disdain for us known. Especially in regard to Cassian’s command.

But before Devlon could shove his way in, Cassian said, “A river crossing like that would be time-consuming and dangerous. The river’s too wide. Even with winnowing, we’d have to construct boats or bridges to get across. And an army this size … We’d have to go west, then cut south—”

As the words faded, Cassian’s face paled. And I looked at where Hybern’s army was now marching eastward, below that mighty river. From where we were now—

“He wanted us exhausting ourselves on winnowing armies around,” Helion said, picking up the thread of Cassian’s thought. “On fighting those battles. So that when it counted, we would not have the strength to winnow past that river. We’d have to go on foot—and take the long way around to avoid the crossing.”

Tarquin swore now. “So he could march south, knowing we’re days behind. And enter the human lands with no resistance.”

“He could have done that from the start,” Kallias countered. My knees began to shake. “Why now?”

It was Nesta who said from her seat across the room beside the faelight brazier, “Because we insulted him. Me—and my sisters.”

All eyes went to us.

Elain put a hand on her throat. She breathed, “He’s going to march on the human lands—butcher them. To spite us?”

“I killed his priestess,” I murmured. “You took from his Cauldron,” I said to Nesta. “And you …” I examined Elain. “Stealing you back was the final insult.”

Kallias said, “Only a madman would wield the might of his army just to get revenge on three women.”

Helion snorted. “You forget that some of us fought in the War. We know firsthand how unhinged he can be. And that something like this would be exactly his style.”

I caught Rhys’s eye. What do we do?

Rhys’s thumb brushed down the back of my hand. “He knows we’ll come.”

“I’d say he’s assuming quite a lot about how much we care for humans,” Helion said. Keir looked inclined to agree, but wisely remained silent.

Rhys shrugged. “He’ll have seen our prioritizing of Elain’s safety as proof that the Archeron sisters hold sway here. He thinks they’ll convince us to haul our asses down there, likely to a battlefield with few advantages, and be annihilated.”

“So we’re not going to?” Tarquin frowned.

“Of course we’re going to,” Rhys said, straightening to his full height and lifting his chin. “We will be outnumbered, and exhausted, and it will not end well. But this has nothing to do with my mate, or her sisters. The wall is down. It is gone. It is a new world, and we must decide how we are to end this old one and begin it anew. We must decide if we will begin it by allowing those who cannot defend themselves to be slaughtered. If that is the sort of people we are. Not individual courts. We, as a Fae people. Do we let the humans stand alone?”

“We’ll all die together, then,” Helion said.

“Good,” Cassian said, glancing at Nesta. “If I end my life defending those who need it most, then I will consider it a death well spent.” Lord Devlon, for once, nodded his approval. I wondered if Cassian noticed it—if he cared. His face revealed nothing, not as his focus remained wholly on my sister.

“So will I,” Tarquin said.

Kallias looked to Viviane, who was smiling sadly up at him. I could see the regret there—for the time they had lost. But Kallias said, “We’ll need to leave by tomorrow if we are to stand a chance at staunching the slaughter.”

“Sooner than that,” Helion said, flashing a dazzling smile. “A few hours.” He jerked his chin at Rhys. “You realize humans will be slaughtered before we can get there.”

“Not if we can act faster,” I said, rotating my shoulder. Still stiff and sore, but healing fast.

They all raised their brows.

“Tonight,” I said. “We winnow—those of us who can. To human homes—towns. And we winnow out as many of them as we can before dawn.”

“And where will we put them?” Helion demanded.

“Velaris.”

“Too far,” Rhys murmured, scanning the map before us. “To do all that winnowing.”

Tarquin tapped a finger on the map—on his territory. “Then bring them to Adriata. I will send Cresseida back—let her oversee them.”

“We’ll need all the strength we have to fight Hybern,” Kallias said carefully. “Wasting it on winnowing humans—”

“It is no waste,” I said. “One life may change the world. Where would you all be if someone had deemed saving my life to be a waste of time?” I pointed to Rhys. “If he had deemed saving my life Under the Mountain a waste of time? Even if it’s only twenty families, or ten … They are not a waste. Not to me—or to you.”

Viviane was giving her mate a sharp, reproachful glare, and Kallias had the good sense to mumble an apology.

Then Amren said from behind us, striding through the tent flaps, “I hope you all voted to face Hybern in battle.”

Rhys arched a brow. “We did. Why?”

Amren set the Book upon the table with a thump. “Because we will need it as a distraction.” She smiled grimly at me. “We need to get to the Cauldron, girl. All of us.”

And I knew she didn’t mean the High Lords.

But rather the four of us—who had been Made. Me, Amren … and my sisters.

“You found another way to stop it?” Tarquin asked.

Amren’s sharp chin bobbed in a nod. “Even better. I found a way to stop his entire army.”

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